Where to Eat Outdoors in Austin, TX, 2014 Edition

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Thanks to warm and dry weather, almost every restaurant in Austin seems to have some outdoor dining space. [Photographs: Meredith Bethune]

Austin has a vibrant patio culture. Thanks to year round warm weather and little rain, almost every restaurant seems to have some kind of al fresco dining space. But what makes a patio stand out in this crowded field? Well, shade is a must because Austinites still want to eat and drink outside, even though summer temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees. Of course, a relaxed space serving great food, beer, and cocktails doesn't hurt either.

Here are a few of my favorite places to check out during the summer in Austin.

All-Out Great Food: Contigo

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To me, this casual dining destination embodies Austin, so it's a can't-miss spot for out-of-town visitors. Inspired by the owner's family's ranch in South Texas, almost all of the seating at Contigo is outdoors or open to the air. Actually, the setting is more like a stylish pole barn, complete with communal picnic tables and gravel at your feet.

Fittingly, Contigo serves sophisticated comfort food with a rustic Texas twist. Start with the ox tongue sliders and then share a cast iron skillet of rabbit and dumplings with the table. You also can't go wrong with one of their burgers or seasonally inspired vegetable side dishes.

Beer, Pretzels, and Sausages: Easy Tiger

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I all but gave up the search to find a decent pastrami sandwich when I moved from New York to Austin, but then I tried Easy Tiger. This combination beer garden and bake shop boasts a breathtaking patio surrounded by a quarry and a creek, and it's all shaded by large trees. Beer is the focus, but the brilliant combination of freshly baked breads with smoked meats and housemade sausages means the food is not an after thought. There's also a full bar for the non-beer drinkers.

Modern Mexican: Takoba

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Takoba is a great spot for brunch, dinner, or happy hour. Out of a charming bungalow on East 7th Street, this East Austin hangout serves a full menu of of solid Mexican favorites like tacos, enchiladas, and chiles rellenos. All of their tortas are served on bolillos from a nearby Mexican bakery, and the vegetarian version filled with portabella mushrooms and Oaxaca cheese is a favorite.

Sit at one of the patio tables by the sidewalk or lounge in a colorful adirondack chair while sipping on a mango-habanero margarita or spicy cocktail of mezcal mixed with Aperol, grapefruit, and lime juice.

Fancy Cocktails and Small Plates: Weather Up

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The Austin location of this cocktail lounge is already known for its sleek interior and copper bar, but tucked away in the back is outdoor seating shaded by a giant oak tree. The cozy outdoors area at Weather Up is also the site of the bar's new Sunday brunch and bi-monthly supper club that launched last month. Guests can try Chef Kristine Kittrell's food anytime by ordering from the bar's regular menu of sophisticated small plates, like morels with gnocchi or steamed mussels.

The focus remains, though, on the concise but ever-changing cocktail list that can call for esoteric ingredients like tangerine habanero bitters and blood orange caramel. That said, these expert bartenders are also willing to make you a perfect Negroni, if you'd prefer.

Barbecue and Bourbon: Freedmen's

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It might not have the reputation of other barbecue spots like Franklin BBQ or La Barbecue, but Freedmen's offers something different in terms of atmosphere. Located in a beautifully restored historic building, the combination bar and restaurant serves good brisket, sausage, ribs, and other dishes all day instead of just until the early afternoon.

The expansive patio also has a palpable Texas vibe, complete with a view of the building's stonework and the unmistakable smell of the smoker. The bar specializes in whiskey, particularly bourbon, but also has a good selection of beers. Be sure to save room for the smoked banana pudding.

Upscale Italian: Olive & June

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This restaurant might offer the most epic patio experience in town. Chef Shawn Cirkiel and his crew serve classic Italian dishes like spaghetti puttanesca and bucatini amatriciana to diners on a three level patio surrounding a giant oak tree. All of the pasta is homemade and there are also a variety of meat and fish dishes. The restaurant's happy hour and Sunday family-style dinner are particularly popular.

Seafood: Perla's

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Larry McGuire's South Austin restaurant fills the city's giant void for good seafood. As an added bonus, Perla's is right on busy South Congress Ave, an area well known for shopping, but a bit lacking in good dining options. A stately old oak rises out of the center of the wooden deck, creating a tree house vibe even though the seating is barely above sidewalk level. The restaurant serves full entrees, but the "afternoon snack" menu (served from 3 to 5:30 p.m.) and appetizer menu with dishes like bay scallop pozole verde and pan roasted crab cakes are the most enticing. Order several dishes to share, or check out their happy hour, when oysters are 50 cents off.

Food Trucks: The Picnic

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There are over one thousand food trucks in Austin, but most offer either uncomfortable seating options or none at all. That's why I like to visit The Picnic, a new food truck court on Barton Springs Road. If features a collection of Austin's favorite trucks like The Seedling Truck and Hey!...You Gonna Eat Or What? and classics like The Mighty Cone and Hey Cupcake!. Plus, you'll also find shade, ceiling fans, restrooms, and plenty of tables crammed with eaters still in their bathing suits after going to Barton Springs. All of these amenities could make you wonder if food trucks have officially jumped the shark, but it's still a convenient place to get a bite to eat after swimming.

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